Five years ago, when the Vancouver Canucks came close to winning the Stanley Cup, the team had an array of offensive talents – including in the faceoff circle, where the Canucks were the best in the league.
During Vancouver's long slide from the top, the team has worsened in many ways. In the faceoff circle, the decline has been the biggest. The team was second-worst in faceoffs last season and this season it is at the bottom of the league, by a considerable margin.
Winning faceoffs does not win hockey games – but losing them at a significant rate leads to a seemingly endless cycle of chasing the puck. And Vancouver is among the worst puck-possession teams, badly outshot by opponents. It starts on the faceoff dot.
Coming out of the all-star break, management of the Canucks faces difficult choices.
The team is on pace for as bad a season as it had under John Tortorella two years ago – which had been the Canucks' worst since 1999-2000. But because the Pacific Division is weak, the fourth-place Canucks aren't far out of a playoff berth. The team's owners harbour hopes of making the postseason – even though the odds by several calculations are not good.
Vancouver, starting Thursday, has a run of 14 of 19 games at home through mid-March. But the team's longer-term fortunes, in faceoffs and otherwise, would probably benefit from the trade of several veterans who could net a reasonable return.
Faceoffs woes illuminate a team in transition and its problem at the crucial position of centre. Team captain Henrik Sedin, 35, has had a solid season but was never a great faceoff man. At the team's best, Sedin was 50-50. It was centres such as Ryan Kesler and Manny Malhotra who helped Vancouver dominate faceoffs. Last year, Sedin's faceoff success slid notably and it hasn't improved. With two more seasons on his contract, Sedin remains Vancouver's top-line centre, next year for sure and possibly the next.
Brandon Sutter, the 26- ear-old acquired from Pittsburgh and signed to a big contract, was supposed to fill the gap. But he missed two-thirds of the season so far, returning from injury just before the all-star break.
Much has landed on the second-season shoulders of 20-year-old Bo Horvat. He's a little better than 50-50 on faceoffs – and since on a relative basis he has been the team's best available man, he's taken a heavy load of defensive-zone draws.
Otherwise, the faceoff options are not good: rookie Jared McCann has shown promise in his play but is second-worst in the league on draws; 30-year-old journeyman Adam Cracknell is also in the league's bottom 10; 24-year-old Linden Vey's numbers are weak as well.
Coach Willie Desjardins considers faceoffs a key part of a centre's job – but in his time as coach of the Canucks, the team has been consistently awful. It takes away from the Canucks offence, he said before the all-star break.
"If you don't have the puck when you start, then you've got to go and get it," Desjardins said.
Statistical research on the importance of faceoffs hasn't found a strong correlation with indicators of winning such as puck possession. Still, in recent seasons, top possession teams generally are better than 50 per cent on faceoffs and weak possession teams are worse than 50 per cent.
Darryl Sutter, whose Los Angeles Kings have struggled somewhat this season on faceoffs (49.7 per cent), figured it would have hurt his team.
"To remain a top possession team – with our faceoff percentage being as low as it is – is almost remarkable," Sutter said earlier last month.
Desjardins expressed some hope – that the Canucks had been better on faceoffs of late – but it doesn't bear out. There were two recent games when the Canucks won more than they lost, but of the past 10 games, the team's percentage is 46.2. The number is only a little better than the team's success rate of 45.4 per cent for the season.
McCann, however, has improved. He is 34.5 per cent for the season but since going 0-for-10 against the Kings in late December, he is at 44.9 per cent in his past 10 games. McCann's struggles are not unusual for a rookie centre. Top picks Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have also had trials in the faceoff circle.
For McCann, getting better has been a focus at practice.
"It's repetitions," he said, "getting into the circle every day, getting that rhythm down, bearing down. I haven't really changed anything up. It's more putting more weight on my stick."
Success on faceoffs colours the game for a centre, Sutter said.
"Games you play well or feel well are probably games you're better in the faceoff circle," he said. "You have the puck a lot more, rather than chasing it. And now with how important possession is, it's a big part. Faceoffs are a confidence thing. Once you have a good game, you take off from there."